Summary: The emphasis on love is not just doctrinal, or practical, or pragmatic, it is central to the way of Christ.
I sometimes have problems trying to figure out how to write about books where I know the author, and I deeply appreciate the message. It would be easy to just write gushing appreciation, and I do appreciate the book and its content as well as the author. But this book deserves more than that.
Love is often thought of by Christians as something trite or simply niceness or softness in theology (a movement toward liberalism). But Christ’s words about love are not advocating niceness. And Jesus saying we should be known for our love is not advocating some doctrine-less ‘anything goes’ understanding of faith. Love, the type that puts others first and includes enemies among those that must be loved, is anything but trite.
There are a number of writers that have written movingly about God’s love and our response to that love. In general, they are not writing abstractly, but in response to a deep relationship to God. They are writing because they have both felt God’s love in them and they have understood God’s call to community and others as a direct response to God’s love of us. In the end, while Christianity does value doctrine, and church structures, and service to others, etc., Love is about relationship and when we move to describing Christianity in any non-relational terms we start moving away from the central role that Love is designed to play in our faith.
Like many others good books on aspects of Christianity, Costly Love is a book about discipleship. Discipleship is about transformation long term, not data processing. Information and theology can help us understand God and others and love more deeply, but theology without praxis is never really full Christianity. Love is not something that can only be thought about, it has to be practiced with actual people.
John Armstrong is not advocating human-only discussion in Costly Love. When he is finished diagnosing the problem of a lack of love, he suggests that the solution is that, “We need a fresh encounter with God-Love so that we can be transformed by the spirit of God so that we can love others with that God-Love.” Later he says, “But we don’t need to seek, love, we have already been given that love by God. Instead we need to seek to remove the barriers to love. We learn to love by loving.” (My attempts as quoting quickly since I listened to this on audiobook.)
In some ways Costly Love could be a short article or talk. But this is not a short article or talk because the Church as a whole really seems to have misunderstood what love is and why it is important. That requires a ground up inspection of what love means, why love is not just some aspect of theology or God’s character, but a central concern. And then the implications of that love. John’s perspective is strongly shaped by his work in what he calls ‘missional ecumenism’. That work is drawing the broad church into greater relationship, understanding, and appreciation of itself.
So many Christians only knows about the narrow stream of Christianity that they swim in. John knows deeply and has deep relationships with Christians that are Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and many streams of Protestantism. Costly Love is shaped by those relationships and the quotes throughout the book show how widely Armstrong has read and understood those different streams of Christianity.
Christianity has been in internal conflict from almost the very start. But there are many movements toward greater unity and understanding that have been strong illustrations of the type of costly love that John is speaking of. John Armstrong is 70 years old now. He officially retired recently, but is still continuing on his ministry of drawing the church to itself in love. We need more elders like him, who model Christian maturity and humility and a constant desire to learn and grow.
Costly Love is a book I commend. I listened to the audiobook and there were three minor audio editing errors where for a couple seconds there was a repeat of a couple sentence or two pieces of audio were overlapped. They were minor, but they were present.